Shasta's History

Shasta Publishers was begun in 1947 by Erle Melvin Korshak, a Chicago area SF OP book dealer with deep roots in the SF fan community — he had attended the First World SF Convention in 1939 — along with friends and local Chicago SF fans and book collectors Thaddeus “Ted” Dikty and Mark Reinsberg. Eric Freyor (always listed as “bibliographer”) and Bruce Collins were also involved in the early stages but dropped out after the OP book dealing side was phased out in favor of book publishing.

It was Reinsberg who suggested the name Shasta in remembrance of the time in 1942 when he and Korshak had summer jobs at Mt. Shasta. Reinsberg was active in its formation and was its initial editor but wasn't a partner because his flowering academic career consumed too much of his time. Dikty maintained for years that he wasn't a partner either, but Shasta's manager and a paid employee; Eshbach noted that Dikty was listed as Vice President of both Shasta and the later Melvin Korshak: Publishers, and Korshak just chuckled about this and noted that, considering the later stage of Shasta and the fact that Dikty remained in unbroken activity in SF after, he wasn't surprised that Dikty minimized his role.

As early as 1939, Dikty's childhood friend, Fred Shroyer, had initially proposed a master bibliography of SF and fantasy books — a checklist of fantastic literature in print — that could be used by collectors, booksellers, and libraries as a seminal guide, and he and Dikty had started work on it when World War II intervened. At the end of the war, however, their initial work on the checklist had vanished, and it was begun again by Dikty, at first using Mark Reinsberg's extensive collection and catalog of same. Like Reinsberg, Korshak was one of the rare ones who'd come out of the war years with his collection in tact, and with his massive number of duplicates had no trouble starting a successful OP bookselling business that prospered sufficiently to allow him to hire old friend Dikty as his manager. Soon, with the two collections at its core, they were able to amass an enormous quantity of file cards on thousands of titles.

Korshak had met Everett F. Bleiler while the latter was doing graduate work in Chicago. Bleiler had also been active in SF fandom in the Thirties, although strictly by mail, “to keep out of those horrible fan feuds of the period,” he later recalled. Bleiler was fascinated with the project when he heard about it, and agreed to organize and systematize the work, adding quite a bit to it (he told us it was the bulk of the work) himself. The trio of Korshak, Dikty, and Reinsberg paid Bleiler $500 to do the job, which was completed in early 1948.

Also in that year, Shasta published its first and second publications, small promotional paperbacks that were two-thirds OP book catalogs and one-third little magazines on book collecting, publishing, bibliography, etc., using a local Chicago area commercial printer better suited to flyers and brochures to do the job. The initial two chapbooks, the first publications to bear the Shasta name (although with a different logo than the classic Bok one above used when they went to book produc­tion — see the end of this section below) so pleased Korshak that he asked the same printer to do the Checklist, which then became the first book the fellow ever produced, although the principals note that within three years this printer had evolved into a full book production company, with Shasta pretty much bankrolling his book printing education. Because of the printer's inexperience, only 1933 of the 2200 ordered actually were done, and 1000 of them were bound by a local bindery. Korshak notes that the unusually small size and shape of the book was because they wanted a comprehensive volume that, none the less, would fit in a suit jacket inner pocket so that they could each carry a copy with them as a portable reference when scouring the stacks of bookstores.

Thus, the now classic and standard Checklist of Fantastic Literature saw print, and a new hardcover imprint, Shasta, was born. The book sold extremely well, as you might expect, being the first of its kind, and made so much of a profit (no royalties, remem­ber) that it provided virtually all the seed money Shasta initially required. As soon as it was clear that a profit was to be quickly realized on the book, Korshak, Dikty, and Reinsberg wanted to go into publishing full-steam. Reinsberg immediately wanted to do fiction, although the initial thought of the other two was to produce primarily nonfiction, and he became the initial editor of the press, with Dikty handling production and Korshak distribution and sales. A third and final chapbook and catalog, Adventures in Reading, announced the new line.

Reinsberg, however, bowed out of the operation at the start of 1950 to pursue an academic career, but not until acquiring and editing the first half-dozen fiction titles, after which Korshak alone edited and acquired and essentially drove the operation, with Dikty handling production, shipping, and the like.

Korshak and Dikty basically saw the same thing that Martin Greenberg and Dave Kyle had seen in New York and Hadley and Grant in Providence: that there was a lot of good SF out there and nobody was really publishing it.

Thus, like Gnome Press, Shasta was intended from almost the start to be a real commercial enterprise to fill the vacuum in SF book publishing after the war. Also like Gnome, they overextended themselves in just a few years and also ran headlong into the growth of the paperback and book club industry and were more or less polished off by the bust in SF in 1954. For a short period, however, they were a meteor in the field and a magnet for books. Their materials were extremely high in comparison to the mass market volumes of the time, and hold up very well today — far better than Gnome's, although Shasta, after talking with Kyle and Greenberg, switched to using the same company, H. Wolff & Co. in New York, for production. For a time, they seemed destined to dominate the field, taking their pick of the best material with Gnome doing the rest, and after Korshak engineered a deal with Pock­et Books for cooperative money and publishing it seemed like nothing could stop them.

It should be mentioned that Bleiler and Dikty combined to produce the first best SF of the year anthology series, originally for Shasta, but Korshak talked them into doing it for the mass market New York publishers instead, so that it would bring in capital rather than commit Shasta to a long-term experiment, and these highly successful and groundbreaking anthologies, the precursor of today's several best of the year series, provided added seed money to Shasta, with Dikty's share going almost entirely into the business while Bleiler got paid for his work with his own share. Later, after Bleiler left for a stint in Europe and Dikty had left Shasta, Dikty continued the series on his own, keeping the much-needed money, and, after the mass market publishers dropped the series, doing one as an early Advent title.

At the heart of Shasta's problems, however, was another story familiar to presses covered in this book: Korshak was an excellent salesman, but not at this point a really good businessman. When the money started rolling in, it seemed as if growth was going to happen forever and so little attention was paid to the source of the income; cash in was used to finance new projects. There would always be enough cash to cover outstanding things like payments to authors and new acquisitions from subsequent sales, right?

Wrong, of course. Almost alone among his contemporaries, Korshak saw the growth of the paperback industry as a boon rather than a curse to the hardcover field. His deal with Pocket resulted in essentially the first mass market dedicated paperback SF line. What didn't become immediately obvious was the effect the deal would have on Shasta's end book buyers, who quickly realized that, if they waited a year and read the book at the local library instead of shelling out three bucks for it, it would then appear in a 25¢ or 35¢ paperback. From controlling the subsidiary rights and schedules, Shasta, by the Pocket deal and commitment, had imposed on itself a sales “window” of one year or less; if it didn't sell out and make its full profits within that period of time, the book would die in hardcover. Korshak proved this point by noting that he sold 11,500 copies of The Man Who Sold the Moon, far more copies than many mass market publishers in New York did of their own books, yet, by Revolt in 2100, sales were down to a mere 5000 even though Heinlein was developing into a superstar and “must buy” author, and a large amount of even that 5000 were to libraries, notorious for forcing heavy paperwork on publishers and for slow pay, often via equally slow library distributors with whom most librarians prefer to deal.

This is not to say that very tight business practices and an efficient operation couldn't have still done okay with that number; rather, by the time those facts became clear to Korshak, he had already spent as if the higher level of sales would go on and on and even grow. As early as 1952, he was running so cash poor that an inci­dent that would stain his and Shasta's reputation forever was inevitable. This was the Phil Farmer Riverworld affair.

According to Farmer, Korshak announced that he had an agreement with Pocket Books to run a contest for the best SF novel of the year, with Shasta doing the hardcover and Pocket the paperback, for more money than most authors could get otherwise. Farmer wrote day and night at breakneck speed and finally finished a massive work called I Owe For the Flesh, about everyone who ever lived on Earth waking up on the banks of a monstrous river on an alien world, which won the contest hands down. Going to Chicago to collect the check, Farmer went through a whole PR and photo ceremony, but the check he received was blank and unsigned. When called on this, Korshak expressed surprise and said he was sure he'd told Farmer about that, but in any case Pocket insisted on changes, cuts, etc. before it would pay and Farmer was sent back to Peoria empty-pocketed. Only later did Farmer learn that Pocket had indeed paid the whole amount up front before the contest was even announced; Korshak had simply thrown the money into the Shasta pot, using it to pay back bills and new print bills in the expectation (unrealized) that he'd earn enough back before he had to come up with the money to pay it, stalling Farmer until the amount due was available.

It never was. Owe was never published and is lost, and the subsequent River-world series, based upon it and done years later, is quite different, although a second, shorter version, written from the original big book as a desperate attempt to get it published, finally saw light after the rewritten saga went on to fame and glory; this was published in 1983 as River of Eternity by Phantasia Press, which see (and which also contains a Farmer account of this affair). There was also another incarna­tion, Owe for a River, also lost. In fact, if anyone has a copy of the original manu­script (one carbon existed and was auctioned at a Fifties SF convention), Farmer and several publishers would still very much like to talk to them.

For Shasta, though, the handwriting was now on the wall, and when Revolt in 2100 sold far below expectations, following hard on the Farmer affair which received a great deal of attention by the writers in the field (indeed, over forty years later Farmer was still mad and will still tell you about it, and his opinion of Korshak remained unprintable), Shasta was doomed. Although Heinlein always got paid, he told us that he shifted his operations to Gnome Press because he had the strong feel­ing (never proved and denied by Shasta and not, in fact, likely) that Korshak and Dikty were printing and selling more of his books than they were reporting and paying royalties on to him. Gnome appeared to be more solid to him (and was not — but Heinlein said he was always paid honestly and on time by them, a real rarity for Gnome) — and this cost Shasta its most bankable author. Bester took The Stars My Destination and went direct to paperback, and Hubbard and most others pulled out as well. Ironically, it's difficult to say if Bester, at least, did better by leaving; his contracts with Signet gave them exclusive rights for 28 years (he once said “forever”) with no obligation to reprint but keeping 50% of the sub rights including foreign sales!

The photographs and illustrations below are all from the initial chapbooks of 1947-1948.
Erle Melvin Korshak Fred Shroyer Mark Reinsberg T.E. Dikty Original Logo